Author Elizabeth Strout on beauty, poetry and plotlines in American small towns
Growing up in small-town Maine, author Elizabeth Strout knows only too well that there's beauty, poetry and scandal to be found in sparsely populated towns. In fact, much of the horsepower of Strout's books - among them the bestselling titles Olive Kitteridge and My Name Is Lucy Barton - has been built on examining the unassuming lives of seemingly ordinary, unremarkable characters. And in her latest book, Anything Is Possible, the inhabitants of rural Amgash, Illinois are isolated from the rest of the world, effectively forced to face each other. It all makes for a hugely compelling, unsettling read.
"I just naturally go there," notes Strout of her decision to locate her action in small-town America.
"Though I've been living in New York for 35 years, I was brought up in small towns and my heart goes back there many times with my work. Growing up in Maine, all I ever wanted was to be away. I really love being in New York City, but I find I have a low-boiling nostalgia for smaller towns.
"The thing about small towns is there's an isolation there, but the people don't know they're isolated," she adds.
"They're just living inside their lives. People there feel they might know each other, as they've lived there their whole lives, but they only know each other in a different way. I'm fascinated by that."
Strout's sixth novel, Anything Is Possible, is more like a collection of short stories in which the residents of Amgash overlap. Amgash may be familiar to readers of Strout's 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. And in a rather gratifying turn of events, many of the characters touched on in Lucy Barton reappear. Anything Is Possible works as a brilliant companion piece to the 2016 novel, incidentally, and while reading Lucy Barton will greatly enhance one's enjoyment of Strout's new book, it's a work that can be fully enjoyed in its own right.
"That seems to be a style I've had a couple of times," Strout muses of the decision to create a collection of short stories. "It's something that has risen organically, and I do understand that everyone will be connected to at least someone in these stories. Everyone gets their time in the sun, so to speak. I'm so interested in the ordinary life," she adds.
"That's what really draws me, the life of characters who don't think they have a voice and don't think of themselves in that way at all. For me, it's about trying to go into their inner lives."
It's a quality - portraying the interiority of middle America's denizens - that has brought Strout no end of plaudits. In 2009, and at the age of 53, Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge, a quietly seismic novel about a middle-aged woman secretly contemplating suicide in the run up to her son's wedding. And yet Strout, who found worldwide literary acclaim relatively late (she is now 61), experienced much rejection in her formative years as a writer. "I don't have a memory of myself as anything except wanting to be a writer," she recalls. "That's how far back it goes. My mother, who I think might have liked to be a writer herself, gave me all these notebooks as a child and said, 'write down what you did today', so I did." Leaving school at 15 with her mother's blessing and striving to become a writer, Strout had to get used to receiving several rejection letters from publishers through her 20s and 30s.
"It's interesting," she says. "It was hard (getting those letters), and yet I understood on some level that my work was not yet good enough. Rejection is painful, and yet there was a sense that I could be a good writer. I knew in my heart I could do it."
Writing short stories that were published by Seventeen and Redbook magazines, Strout tired of working as a cocktail waitress or secretary in New York - there was also a depressing spell selling mattresses in a department store - and eventually decided on a Plan B. She enrolled at New York's Syracuse University's college to study law. All the while, she kept writing.
"My thinking went along the lines of, 'let me be a lawyer and do good work during the day and then write at night', which strikes me as somewhat misinformed," she smiles.
"I was a lawyer for six months and was terrible at it."
"I wanted to be a writer so much that the idea of failing at it was almost unbearable to me," she says. "I really didn't tell people as I grew older that I wanted to be a writer - you know, because they look at you with such looks of pity. I just couldn't stand that."
A stand-up comedy class, of all things, provided her with a breakthrough.
"I figured that my writing wasn't working because I wasn't being truthful enough on the page," she recalls.
"I mean, we laugh at something because it's true, and someone is saying the unsayable. Signing up for that comedy class was terrifying, but I really did learn from it."
She began working on her debut novel, Amy & Isabelle. After crafting it for seven years, the book was eventually completed and published, earning Strout a slew of award nominations, including the 2000 Orange book prize.
Strout is grateful that literary success came later in life for her: "When you're young and win these things, it can knock you for a loop," she notes.
"Because (success) sort of arrived later in life, it doesn't seem to overly affect me."
Still, seeing TV or movie adaptations of books like Olive Kitteridge - which starred Frances McDormand and went on to win a number of Emmy awards - must have been, in some small way, thrilling?
"That was such a trip," she says. "It was so weird. The first time I saw the movie, it felt separate from me."
While Strout wasn't overly involved in the adaptation of her book, she did meet a few times with McDormand to discuss Olive, and had conversations with screenwriter Jane Anderson.
"At the time of watching it, I'd recognise exactly, 'I did this. I made that character'. It was really weird," she says.
Certainly, Strout's writing is ripe for the big screen treatment: Amy & Isabelle was adapted as a TV movie by Oprah Winfrey's Harpo films, while Robert Redford has recently optioned the rights of 2013's novel The Burgess Boys for HBO.
As to whether Strout will take a more active role in future TV adaptations: "I don't know anything about movies, and I don't want to learn," she shrugs. "Besides, I have my own work to do."
Elizabeth Strout appears at the O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin on May 29 as part of the International Literature Festival, Dublin. See ilfdublin.com for details